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Tour de France

July 27, 2004

A public radio commentary

Lance Armstrong has again dominated the Tour de France. No doubt he's a great athlete, but he commands the race partly because he uses every high tech improvement allowed by the rules.

I know of no more high tech sport than cycling. Riders win the Tour de France by the tiniest of margins. In twenty-one days of riding covering 2,110 miles, the victor has won by as few as eight seconds!

To shave seconds the riders turn to high tech. Even though the International Cycling Union rules spells out the type of equipment allowed - to quote: the race "asserts the primacy of man over machine" - there's still room for a great deal of fancy engineering.

help cyclist battle drag - the wind resistance that impedes forward motion. No longer does the cyclist put the pedal to the metal - there isn't much metal left. Bike frames are made of aerospace-grade carbon fiber. The engineers have carefully arranged the fibers so the bike is rigid laterally for hard peddling, yet flexible vertically for comfort. The carbon fiber makes the bike lightweight: The rules allow a minimum of 6.8 kilograms, about 15 pounds - and no cyclist worth his or her salt uses anything heavier. And where the bike designers still use metal - the gears and the bike chain - they've hollowed out the aluminum crank arms and replaced much of the gears with ultra lightweight titanium. The high tech of the frame doesn't end with the material.

The shape of the frame reflects extensive wind tunnel tests as do the wheels. Engineers shape the wheels so that air flows over the tire and wheel smoothly without breaking into a turbulent mass that causes drag. They added dimples to the rim like on a golf ball: These keep the air flow attached longer reducing the drag-causing eddies that form. Even the clothing has a chest vent that sucks in air when upright, passing it around the body and closes when the rider is hunched. And the shoes that move the pedals went through 100 prototypes before the designers settled on synthetic leather that won't stretch or shrink in rain or heat.

And just riding the bike makes use of high tech gizmos. Lance Armstrong uses a computer-based power meter to measure every aspect of his cycling - track speed, heart rate, incline, cadance, altitude gain and power expended - so that next time his performance can be optimized even more.

What's left, you ask, for the cyclist to do? Well, pedal ... so far the rules outlaw motors.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises